Ireland’s welfare pathway

September 2, 2015     Leave a Comment

Tom Boland and Ray Griffin from Waterford Institute of Technology review the Irish government’s Pathways to Work policy

During the high growth of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period in Ireland (1997-2007), Irish parliamentarians and policymakers consciously ignored the OECD-wide push towards more ‘active labour market policies’ and particularly benefit conditionality. However, during a very acute recession, with unemployment rising from 4% to 15%, the state applied for an IMF/EU/ECB bailout. One of the conditions of the resulting 2010 ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ was the implementation of active labour market policies. The political talk was of both doing things and being seen to be doing things to restore confidence in the bond market. So in 2012 the new government implemented the Pathways to Work policy, largely based on that in the UK, but taking some inspiration from Australia and elsewhere.

Alongside increased conditionality around welfare payments, there are stronger systems of monitoring and more direct connections to employers. New Intreo offices combine welfare and jobseeking after the fashion of Jobcentres and a system of government funded internships, JobBridge, pays a €50 top-up to welfare payments for individuals who work for private or public employers for six to nine months ­- with no guarantee or a job afterwards. Along with broad disquiet over the new policy direction, many instances of abuse of this scheme have been highlighted in the media. But the fact that continued welfare is conditional on accepting ‘appropriate’ offers of internships – effectively labour beneath the minimum wage – is rarely identified as a problem.

Such a policy shift was imminent in any case: successive Employment Action Plans during the recession referred to ‘activation’ measures. However, the context of the bailout might help explain why Pathways in Ireland was not trialled in any area. Nor was any research carried out on the impact of activation or stricter conditionality on either the well-being of individuals or on their job-seeking behaviour. The Economic and Social Research Institute produced several papers which replayed OECD criticism of the ‘passive’ nature of the Irish system, with an overview of international evidence. These made no distinction between increased welfare conditionality and the provision of training, re-education or employment supports. No serious research has been published to date by the Department of Social Protection on the impact of Pathways, but credit for decreasing unemployment is routinely assigned to the programme.

It was in this context that we set up the Waterford Unemployment Experiences Research Collaborative in 2012 to study the experiences of unemployed people and the effects of the new policies upon them. Our methods spanned policy and media analysis of the culture around unemployment, anthropological study, focus groups and in-depth interviews. The resulting analysis is published this August in The Sociology of Unemployment by Manchester University Press. A shorter report, The Condition of Unemployment will be published in early September.

In Ireland Pathways was rolled out quite swiftly from 2012-2014, and the differences in the experiences of those we interviewed over time was marked. In 2012 we found that individuals who were made redundant generally tended to experience deprivation (in the sense of Jahoda’s classic theory). Especially strong was the decline of a sense of meaning and identity and the time-structure of the day. These feelings tended to intensify over the first few months of unemployment, but often tended to abate over time, as other, non-work identities and activities came to have more importance. However, under Pathways in 2014 there were a number of distinctly observable differences:

  1. Individuals tended to incorporate the concepts and concerns of the welfare office. For instance, some declared that there was no point in ‘being picky’ about employment opportunities and that their ‘standards had dropped’, they ‘would consider anything’, and so forth. So, the policy achieves something of its aim in increasing willingness to take any job, yet does so through the threat of sanctions, so that the labour market is not free but coercive. Many expressed resentment at this and found ways of resisting.
  2. Our respondents generally tended to feel under suspicion by the welfare office, as if their job searching efforts never were enough. Lack of employment was strongly defined as a personal failure rather than a deficiency of the economy (as per Sharone’s research in the US). The proliferation of interventions and meetings with the office was not seen as the offer of more support, but the intensification of pressure.
  3. Under these conditions, more individuals tended to have negative experiences. Many described themselves as depressed, and some had been clinically diagnosed as such since becoming unemployed. These elements emerge from unemployment outside harsher benefit conditionality. But in the latter, people distinctly linked the institutional pressure to seek work with their negative feelings, especially the pressure to take up education or internships or lose benefits.

From our analysis of these interviews and other elements, we developed an alternative theory of unemployment. We argue that unemployment is not a natural or neutral economic category, but one which is created by statistics, discourses and institutions which is inscribed on individual subjects, forming them into job-seekers, despite resistances (an experience created by governmentality, in Foucault’s sense). Thus, the sorts of welfare regime, the level of benefit conditionality and the surrounding apparatus of ‘activation’ schemes serve to transform the experience of unemployment, against the backdrop of historical factors and cultural norms.

While announced as ‘radical’ new welfare policy in 2012, Pathways itself gains less media coverage than ‘welfare fraud’ stories. Indeed, journalists often need to briefly summarise the entire system before discussing it, indicating that public understanding of the changes is low. The policy objective to have been ‘seen to be doing something’ is no more a justification for recasting the welfare system. We take some comfort from the relatively restrained approach to sanctions. Just 2% of the unemployed in Ireland have had their payment reduced by one quarter, compared with the UK where one in six have had their whole benefit suspended. However, the trend towards more frequent, harsher and longer use of sanctions is clear. Moreover the consequences of benefit conditionality can also be seen in the growth of precarious labour in Ireland, and persistently high rates of emigration.

Clearly, a ‘governmental’ transformation of the labour market, and society in general, is underway, and its long-term consequences are likely to be problematic. With the economic crisis in Ireland abating, it is important that there is a thorough and informed public debate about the kind of welfare system we want to have; and what kind of a society we wish to be.


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